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“Think Outside the Nidifice”: Endangered Words & How to Save Them

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on November 2, 2010 6 Comments

Ever been inconsolably distraught that no single word in English describes the condition of “being without eyebrows”? Say, when you were preparing to make an argument about whether your dog has them (i.e., eyebrows) or not, for a major televised debate? How happy would you have been to learn that there actually exists such a word, or rather, existed such a word: “epalpebrate“? Or maybe at some point in your life, you wanted to characterize something as being “small and cup-like in its shape,” without having to resort to such a cumbersome superabundance of words. Perhaps you once needed to describe cow’s ears to someone who’d never seen them. “They are shaped like little cups” just sounds forced, right, and awkward? Well, fret no more-if you find should find yourself in that situation (again), you can describe the ears as being “pocilliform.” (What a snazzy, compact little word, eh?)

Or maybe, once upon a time, you chPicture 3anced upon a mule that was extremely sick, writhing in agony, in its final death throes. As you beheld the tragic sight, you mused, what sort of a vet specializes in the medical care of mules? A “mulomedic” vet! (What a treat of a word, no?-but alas!-a word that is also in its final death throes.)

Or, perhaps, there was a time when you were reading a historical text that was less than riveting, and the historian, you felt, came across as a “contemptible, inferior scholar”; and you ached-verily ached!-for the one word that would precisely describe him/her. WELL, there’s a word for the subpar historian: “historiaster“!(How indeed could this word come so close to being lost?)

Or perhaps, you’ve wondered-wandering around the aisles of Ikea? Home Depot?-why on EARTH there wasn’t one word that encapsulated the phrase, “pertaining to furniture.” Shockingly, there IS such a word: behold the inexplicably obsolete “supellectile.” Or maybe, just maybe, you were once trapped in the middle of a loooong row at a jam-packed lecture, delivered (without a break) for three hours, by the most singularly yawnsome person since the dawn of humankind. And perhaps, in your tortured state, you asked yourself, why oh WHY is there not a word that describes “the behavior of a boring person”? For the presence of such a word might have-in its compactness-revived you? Well, “boreism.” Existed. (How that fell out of favor, where plenty of far less useful terms survive-as a round of Scrabble with my husband always reminds me-is an enduring mystery.)

And last but not least, perhaps you’ve wondered-on sleepless nights when an endless trail of sluggish sheep leap ad infinitum over jumpworthy fences, and to no avail-why there wasn’t a word that describes the “killing of modern people”? A word that described that-well, it couldn’t possibly have gone out of circulation if it ever existed, right? RIGHT? Well, actually, it did. Impossibly, utterly impossibly, “modernicide,”a word that must have once held such “definitive” promise (along with uglyography and others), is…obsolete. [Side note: On the subject of homicidal vocabulary, as a teacher, I’m just fine with doing away with magistricide.]

So now, if any of this rings a bell, or you’re the supercurious sort, or just a sucker for literary causes: head over to the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.), which has unveiled a fascinating program to salvage forgotten/endangered words that are either obsolete, or very close to being so. It’s called, rather transparently, “Save the Words.” Move your cursor over the collage of words-see if you can resist the urgent pleas of “Yo, pick me!” “Yes, yes, me!” “Choose me!” “Me!” As you click on the word, you get to see the definition, and it asks you if you want to adopt the word-a word that unfortunately stands marginalized, forgotten, or, in the O.E.D.’s poignant phrasing, “unloved and unwanted.” Another interesting aspect of the O.E.D.’s program is that it also offers suggestions to “Spread the [Obsolete] Word.” For example, it recommends you try out the phrase “think outside the nidifice” at the next “bored-room” meeting. Or why not show your lifelong commitment to inking lost words, with a menacing “tremefy” tattoo on your arm? Or you could simply confound thousands at a time by hiring someone to sky-write “sigilism” (People would wonder, as the O.E.D. points out, is the pilot drunk? A poor speller?). And, if you’ve got a word that might be on its last legs, send it along to the good folks via email. They’ll find it a foster home.

Go, go, save a word from obscurity. You have nothing to lose-except a word.

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6 Responses to ““Think Outside the Nidifice”: Endangered Words & How to Save Them”

  1. Youki on: 2 November 2010 at 1:04 pm

    I think I’ll adopt “panchymagogue” – n. medicine purging body fluids from the body.

    I feel so sick right now I need a blood transfusion, but for all my body fluids. Maybe some panchymagogue would help.

    p.s. that word wall is cool.

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    Love it-very cool! I still haven’t picked mine…there are too many I want to save!

  2. daveski on: 3 November 2010 at 8:50 am

    I wonder what the future holds for “ambilingual”? http://bibliotecavirtualut.suagm.edu/Glossa2/index.html

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    Probably the same fate that holds for “print” journals, alas.

  3. Paul Vojta on: 3 November 2010 at 10:42 am

    Not to be a fidfad, but is that nedifice, or nidifice? The OED only contains the latter (and ditto for the site phrontistery.info). Let’s keep “orthography” off of the list, shall we?

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    Thanks, just corrected it. 🙂

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